While debating the issue of ESPN signing up only British voices for their World Cup match coverage on the most recent American Soccer Show, I found myself arguing more strenuously against the problem of American soccer appropriating English/British football culture than the actual announcers themselves.
This is a pervasive problem (and if you have an issue with my characterization of it as a "problem", you're more than welcome to disagree in the comments) that extends not only to the soccer fanatic's general preference for English announcers, but to more widespread issue of taking our cultural cues from the Old Country.
This all stems, of course, from the common language. Without it, England would be just another football-mad country that cares about the game way more than we do, no different from Spain, Italy, Germany, etc. But because information flows freely across the Atlantic without the need for pesky translation, Americans absorb the English game and opinion on it naturally and without effort. It's why the English Premier League has so many fans here, and why a strong streak of inferiority runs through too much of American soccer's fan culture. Still, it would be amazing if we didn't defer to our colonial progenitors in some way.
Which is why I struggle with the larger question of just how much of an imperative there should be for American soccer to develop its own identity. And by "American soccer" I mean less the youth team machine, which is a major part of any discussion but remains oddly detached from the highest levels, and more the appreciation of the professional game; we have our own leagues, we have a pretty good national team, and we have a history. So why then should the English version of things have such an impact on how we view ourselves?
I'm generalizing, of course, because it's the easiest way to paint the picture and the simplest way to convey my thoughts. There are many, many, Americans who can both appreciate the English and Scots, enjoy their brand of football, and listen to them pontificate without turning their noses up when their Yank counterparts get in on the act. But there's also a large segment of the American footy-loving populace that refuse to believe Americans capable of much when it comes to the game, be it playing it, announcing it, or otherwise. This attitude holds America back from developing its own unique soccer culture, one that sets it apart from our Anglophone cousins while properly recognizing the strong connections that exist between us.
We're conditioned, as fans, to believe British is better. ESPN's decision on their World Cup announcers is just another example that the media decision-makers understand that fact; add that the country's highest profile/most popular soccer radio show is hosted by Brits and that Brits populate the analyst chairs on our studio shows, and it's clear that as a soccer nation we struggle to assign credibility to those with American accents. The inevitable consequence is that aforementioned inferiority complex; not only do we defer to the British on matters of opinion, we begin to feel anything done by Americans is inherently less valuable. This sense of inferiority colors how many of us view any domestically-bred soccer, including our nascent top-flight club competition, the efforts of our national team, Americans as players, coaches, etc.
If it's American, it's can't possibly be good.
Back to that pesky ESPN World Cup announcer for a moment. How much of the backlash I've received for my stance on ESPN's decision is related to conditioning? I believe that people are being honest when they say that the choices are good because "there are no good American announcers", but the cynic in me finds it hard to accept that that at face value; American announcers are held to such a different standard than their British counterparts that I wonder if fans aren't simply deferring to the accent rather than objectively assessing the abilities of the announcers in question.
Any criticism of Martin Tyler is anathema, of course, so I play with fire as I type.
But focusing on the individual comparison (i.e., Martin Tyler v. J.P. Dellacamera) misses the point; the issue isn't "who's better", but rather why an American network is turning wholesale to foreign voices. Again, the common language makes it easy, but that doesn't mean that there's not room to question the cultural (strictly in terms of soccer) implications. The continued appropriation of English football culture for a burgeoning American soccer culture does this country no favors as it grows with the game.
The English invented the game. They took it around the world, spawning soccer-mad cultures in nation after nation. Those countries made the game theirs, developing their own unique flavors and idiosyncrasies that make the sport the world's game not just because it fit in so many cultures, but because those cultures made it fit them. In a time before instant communication and where language was a serious barrier, the Italians, Germans, Brazilians, Argentines, and others were able to create their own soccer bubbles where an organic cultural growth wasn't hindered by the expansive shadow of the English originators. In terms of a more popular American sport, this is similar to the growth of and development of baseball in Japan; the game is the same, but the culture, approach, and style is something different.
The modern world of television and the Internet might mean we'll never escape that English shadow. A distinct, separate, and unique American soccer culture will always be slow to develop as long as the English loom just over the horizon, ready to critique and influence everything we do. Fans here might always defer, always see themselves as more inclined to the British game and voices, always unsure that Americans can fill any of the roles as competently. If we've passed to point of no return on becoming hopelessly conditioned to English football over American soccer, it's probably too late.
Elitism, combined with the sense of inferiority, has too many Americans ashamed of their nationality when it comes to the sport of soccer. It's not enough to love the game, appreciate it in all its forms, and accept that things here will be just a little different. The uphill battle to respectability for our leagues, our players, and our media (announcers included) will be a long and difficult one as long as Americans can't see value in soccer being American, and that being just fine.
I realize that I've probably offended a few people with this, or that it might come off as jingoistic (it's not). All I would ask before you lambaste me via the comments (which you're certainly allowed to do) is to think critically about what I've put forth here; if you have never questioned why you might prefer English to American, now might be a good time for self-examination. And with that being said, I'll admit to my own prejudices, and note that my opinions here are born somewhat out of my own desire to understand the phenomenon as it relates to my soccer appreciation.
There's nothing wrong with preferring English accents, or identifying English soccer as better (of course it is); there is something wrong in my mind, however, with preferring English over American to the full exclusion of the American.